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The Smokestack

The town had a smokestack.

It had a church spire.

The church was prettier,

but the smokestack was higher.

It was a lone ruined column,

a single snuffed taper,

a field gun fired at heaven,

a tube making vapor.

The smoke thinned the attention.

Its aspect kept transforming.

It could look like a cloud, or like

mosquitoes swarming.

The smokestack’s bricks were yellow,and its mouth, twenty feet wide.

Its smoke was usually pale,

but there was a rust color on its side.

The smoke was yellow coral,

a bouquet of yellow roses,

a yellow beard, a yellow eye,

and also runny noses.

Often it looked heavy

like junipers under snow.

At dawn it was limpidly pink

and shaped like an embryo.

It could look like Cuba

as seen from outer space.

It could look like a pedestal stone.

It could look like Jesus’ face.

The busy residents

tended to ignore it,

though no one alive

remembered a time before it.

Sometimes it looked like ermine,

sometimes like elderflower.

Sometimes it looked like a Persian cat,

and sometimes like power.

It came before Lincoln Steffens.

It survived Eric Blair.

It was older than stop signs.

It would always be there,

resembling a tuxedo ruffle,

or an elephant head,

or a balled-up blanket

on a hospital bed.

It stopped three times a year,

but only for one day.

Once, in the ’30s, it seemed to die.

Many families went away.

But it stayed dead a week,

and when it was resurrected,

the sky turned black, and then white,

as if a new pope were elected.

To labor it looked like a witness,

to management a snitch,

to both victim and perpetrator

it looked like getting rich.

At the Chamber of Commerce,

on a postcard of the square,

you’d find it in the background,

diminutive but there.

On cool summer evenings,

it billowed like azure silk.

On cold winter mornings,

it spread like spilled milk.